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Protecting Public Access to FEC Enforcement Files

Protecting Public Access to FEC Enforcement Files (pdf)

On Friday, December 6, NVRI, along with the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) and the Campaign and Media Legal Center (CMLC), filed an Amici (Friend-of-the-Court) Brief asking a federal appeals court to overturn a lower-court ruling which shields from public disclosure the files on campaign finance investigations by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The ruling in question was issued last year by the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., and involved a very high profile FEC investigation of contributions made by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to the Democratic Party. When the investigation was closed in 2001, the AFL-CIO filed suit to keep the extensive investigative files secret (the investigation had revealed information regarding "coordinated campaigns" run by various labor organizations in conjunction with Democratic candidates and information regarding labor contacts with the Clinton administration), which is in direct opposition to the FECs mandate under the Federal Election Commission Act (FECA) which states that the FEC's activities must be subject to public scrutiny and that when investigations are concluded, the FEC must release all the information it has gathered in the course of its inquiry. This law is meant as a "check" on the FEC, so that the public can hold the Commission accountable for their actions and/or inactions. The only credible means of doing so is for organizations like NVRI, CRP and CMLC, along with the media and private citizens, to be able to scrutinize the documents from resolved complaints in order to examine the basis for the decisions. With no temporal limit on the agency's confidentiality provisions, the FEC's incentive to enforce the law and the public's confidence in the integrity of the agency's actions will shrink to the vanishing point.

Although the investigation of the AFL-CIO's contributions to the Democratic Party revealed no violations of any rules and called for no enforcement action, the AFL-CIO and the Democratic National Committee argued that the release of documents from the probe would reveal details of their political operations and unfairly penalize their organizations. The U.S. District judge presiding over the case ruled that campaign finance law requires limited release of documents from these investigations and that only summary documents, such as the settlement agreement or the FEC general counsel's report about a case, should be disclosed. The FEC appealed the decision; however, in the meantime, there is an interim policy to prevent release of investigative files in all newly closed enforcement cases.

The D.C. Circuit has set a date of March 14, 2003 for a three-judge panel to hear arguments in this case.

Challenging Barriers: